Slaves to the script

Political journalism can have negative impacts on the direction of an election and the beliefs of constituents.

by Jason Stahl

Given that I consider myself a Democrat on the left end of the party, it is not often I find myself in agreement with Rush Limbaugh. However, on his Jan. 21 radio show, Limbaugh said something I find hard to disagree with. Addressing conservative media commentators who disagree with his lack of support for John McCain’s presidential candidacy – as well as mainstream news organs covering the race – he said that both of these groups were essentially acting as shills for McCain’s candidacy despite the facts of the primary and caucus season thus far. Limbaugh asserted, “McCain came out of nowhere in New Hampshire, and then they jumped on the McCain bandwagon. Romney wins in Michigan, and they didn’t jump on the Romney bandwagon. They stayed on the McCain bandwagon. Then we go to Wyoming, and Romney won all the delegates there, and they didn’t jump on the Romney bandwagon Ö and then we get to South Carolina and Nevada. In Nevada, Romney cleans up, and nobody talks about it.”

Despite his convoluted ordering of the states, Limbaugh is essentially correct in his assessment if not in his diagnosis of the source of the problem. He is right that everyone in elite broadcast and print political media seems to have anointed John McCain the Republican frontrunner despite the facts. The facts are as follows: Republicans have had six primaries and caucuses so far. Romney won three of these, took second in two and fourth in one. McCain won two of these, took second in another, third in another and fourth in two. These results put Romney in first place toward the overall nomination with 66 of the 1,191 delegates needed to garner the nomination and McCain in second with 38 delegates. So, by the objective measures available, I’m not sure how this makes McCain, and not Romney, the front-runner.

Despite these objective measures, why are we now being beat over the head with the idea that John McCain is the frontrunner? Limbaugh seems to be arguing that we are now being told McCain is the front-runner because of a liberal bias in the media toward the more “moderate” Republican candidate. This bias is supposedly evident among reporters and “sell-out” conservative opinion writers. I’ll let conservatives debate about who is a sell-out, but Limbaugh’s critique obscures the actual problem with the elite political media in the United States and thus misinterprets why they are shilling for McCain.

To diagnose the true problem, it is necessary to look at how mainstream presidential political news is produced in the United States and by whom it is produced. Most Americans still get their news regarding a presidential campaign from large corporate broadcast and print sources. Drawing off a small pool of elite reporters and pundits this group still largely sets the tone for how presidential races are covered and consumed.

Far from being “liberal” this group’s defining characteristic is its utter lack of ideological commitment. They are elite, highly paid professionals who by and large treat politics as a game rather than something with real-world consequences. In addition, the small insular culture of these reporters and pundits – on campaign buses and living and working in the most elite environments of New York and Washington – means that they police each other to constantly reinforce this “politics as game” mentality. This produces vapid coverage which largely follows various easily researched, easily written, and easily consumed “scripts” with various candidates playing different “roles.”

John McCain has always been loved by these elite reporters and pundits. He’s the supposed “straight talker” who has always gone out of his way to court and flatter their lazy conduct. They will trumpet his candidacy any chance they get – thus the current “McCain is Back” script, regardless of the objective evidence to the contrary. Time magazine’s Michael Scherer described this elite reporter man-crush succinctly recently when he wrote, “Here’s one thing you need to know about John McCain. He’s always been the coolest kid in school Ö when he sits in the back of his campaign bus, we reporters gather like kids in the cafeteria huddling around the star quarterback.”

Moreover, despite the fact that such scripts and roles seem grounded in utterly subjective childlike criteria, they always seem to benefit Republicans over Democrats during recent presidential campaigns. In 2000, Al Gore was the boring, pedantic loser who was constantly lying while George W. Bush was the guy you’d like to have a beer with. In 2004, Kerry was the flip-flopping windsurfing elitist while Bush was boldly fighting the War on Terror. This time around, it isn’t just the “Mac is Back” narrative that is benefiting Republicans but also the elite media’s clear sexist hatred of Hillary Clinton. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has called her a “she-devil” and suggested men who support her have been castrated. Politico reporter Mike Allen, after listening to a McCain supporter call Clinton a “bitch,” suggested “what voter in general hasn’t thought that?” These are just a couple of the many examples of the Hillary script that is now being furthered. Obama has largely escaped negative scripting thus far, but this will certainly change in the general election – especially if McCain is the Republican nominee.

The question for progressives – and for all Americans who want to be better informed – is how do we change this dynamic and force better political journalism in presidential campaigns? First and foremost, regardless of whom we support for president we need to work to push back against lazy, ultimately subjective, narrative construction which does nothing to inform the public. Although I support Obama, I can’t ignore the sexist anti-Clinton script or the pro-McCain/anti-Romney script which the elite media has perpetuated. Recently, various progressive blogs have worked to get an apology of sorts from Chris Matthews for his sexist treatment of Clinton. This is an example of the kind of organized push back against scripting which needs to occur.

Finally, we need to encourage more of the good political journalism (it is out there) which moves past scripting and easy narratives and toward more substantive, less subjective, coverage. This would include not only in-depth coverage of “the issues” but also an effort to explain this truly absurd, protracted process by which both parties pick their nominees.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].

Sources: primaries/results/scorecard/#val=R content/01125109.guest.html the_gops_high_school_debate_th.html